Tonia Bern-Campbell

Born November 15, 1936 ;

died June 14, 2021

TONIA Bern-Campbell, who has died aged 84 (there are suggestions she was actually 93), was a Belgian-born singer whose career was mentored by Maurice Chevalier. The French crooner’s mother was a cousin of Bern’s grandmother. Chevalier encouraged the teenager to enter a talent contest, at which one of the judges was Jacques Brel. Taking her under his wing, Brel trained her in a vocal style akin to his own.

“He changed my songs from pretty to blatantly realistic,” Bern-Campbell said. She later sang If You Go Away, the English language version of Ne me quitte pas, penned by Brel and translated by Rod McKuen.

Brel’s protégé went on to release several records, and headlined Carnegie Hall and The Savoy in London. There were stints too in Monte Carlo and Las Vegas for the artist who came to be known as Chic Belgique. On television, she guest starred on The Jack Benny Programme (1957), and The Benny Hill Show (1957), and appeared in several films. These included The Glass Cage (1955), The Flaw (1955), and Keep it Clean (1956), in which she sang two songs.

She won the Passerella d’Oro award for best musical performance in a show in Italy, while her London performance in Conscience and Desire saw one reviewer gush how she “positively oozes charm, appeal and not a little sex”.

Recordings such as My Tennessee, the lead track on a four-track EP released in 1959, served up a form of low-key melodrama set to a sophisticated backing. The three other tracks on the EP saw her show off a more playful range on Ring-A-My-Phone, When, and Pour Aller Danser.

Following a brief marriage to nightclub owner Michael Aptaker, her career was diverted and then overshadowed somewhat after she met British land speed legend Donald Campbell in 1958 while singing at The Savoy. The pair were instantly drawn to each other, and were married within three weeks. She joined Campbell’s Bluebird team, and was nicknamed ‘Fred’, as she put her singing career on hold to travel the world with her husband while he chased ever-faster records. One of her key functions was to hand Campbell his lucky mascot, a teddy bear called Mr Whoppit.

The couple’s private life was as fast as their professional one throughout a passionate, and at times tempestuous relationship that was cut short following Campbell’s tragic death in 1967. This happened while he was attempting to break a new water speed record on Coniston Water in the Lake District with his Bluebird hydroplane. The only thing to surface from the water at the time of the crash was Mr Whoppit.

On the advice of Chevalier, who flew in to look after Bern-Campbell, she wrote about her relationship with Campbell as a form of therapy shortly after his death. It worked, and she soon returned to her original calling, playing the international cabaret circuit for the rest of her life. There were TV appearances too on The Val Doonican Show (1972).

Her candid memoir was eventually published in 2002 as My Speed King: Life with Donald Campbell. The book appeared shortly after the remains of Bluebird were finally lifted from the water. Revelations included how she once charged her husband $100 for sex after he visited a Hawaiian massage parlour.

As she told the Guardian newspaper in 2002, “We were very sexually attracted to each other. I would think at least fifty per cent of our marriage was that, because he tried to find something better occasionally and he didn’t.”

Antoinette Marie Bern was born in the affluent Belgian seaside resort, Knokke-Heist. Her mother died when she was young, and her father, Antone Bern, owned the Carlton Hotel in Belgium She grew up surrounded by men, observing their errant ways through her brothers. She studied acting and music at the Conservatoire Royale in Brussels from the age of 13, and made her debut in Paris aged 16.

She was introduced to Edith Piaf in a casino in Knokke-Heist, but was unimpressed by the singer’s diminutive stature. Only when she saw her sing at the Paris Olympia shortly afterwards did she realise Piaf’s power as a performer.

It was while on a 1958 promotional tour of the UK that she first met Campbell at the Savoy. Fifteen years older and twice married, to say he came with a reputation was an understatement. Nevertheless, despite infidelities on both sides, and his insistence that she put her career on hold, their marriage lasted until Campbell’s tragic demise.

She married a third time in 1989, to the British actor Bill Maynard, whose TV comedy show she had appeared in four decades earlier. They divorced in1998, and she moved to America, ending her days in Palm Springs, Los Angeles.

She continued to appear in cabaret, with her show, Piaf, Chevalier, Brel ... And Me! including film footage of the three great musical influences on her life alongside her own interpretations of their finest works. One clip featured Bern-Campbell with Chevalier in Paris.

Bern-Campbell’s ashes are due to be scattered on Coniston Water, where Campbell rests besides the lake, and where the pair can be reunited in altogether calmer waters than those they knew when they were alive.

She is survived by her stepdaughter, Gina Campbell QSO, three nephews, two great nephews, and a great niece.